MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine Ambassador to the United States, Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez, on Saturday said the plan to accept Afghan refugees was not a secret and had not yet been approved by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Malacañang confirmed that the Presidential Management Staff (PMS) held a “technical coordination meeting” with representatives of various government agencies earlier this week to discuss the US proposal to temporarily house Afghan refugees in the Philippines.
The June 7 meeting was first disclosed by Sen. Imee Marcos on Friday in a statement and a resolution calling for an inquiry into the supposed discreet plan to grant the request to provide safe haven for the Americans’ Afghan supporters who are fleeing the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan.
The senator, the eldest sibling of the president and chair of the Senate foreign affairs committee, criticized the PMS for not informing the public about the meeting, adding that a memorandum of agreement (MOA) between the Philippines and the United States to accommodate an undetermined number of Afghans was already being finalized.
Presidential Communications Secretary Cheloy Velicaria-Garafil on Saturday said the June 7 meeting was “part of the Complete Staff Work process to ensure timeliness and high standards in the submission of memoranda requiring presidential decision.”
“The details of the proposal subject of the meeting may be more appropriately discussed by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA),” she told the Inquirer. In response to a request for comment on the matter, Romualdez, a cousin of the Marcoses, said the US proposal was “no secret.”
On Saturday, Marcos distributed to Senate reporters a copy of a note from one of her “anonymous” sources at the DFA who said that it was Romualdez who had purportedly been pushing for the agreement on the Afghan refugees.
In a Viber message to the Inquirer, Romualdez said the plan to accommodate the Afghans was “No secret … it’s a US request/proposal that has not yet been approved by the President but is under study and review by the different government agencies.”
He confirmed the information from the senator’s source that the United States made the proposal late last year “but [the] MOA [is] still under final study before submission for final approval/submission to the Cabinet security cluster.”
Marcos’s DFA source said Romualdez pushed for the US proposal “despite objections from a majority of DFA and security sectors officials.”
Reacting to the purported objections from the officials, Romualdez said: “That I don’t know.”
The security and foreign affairs officials all raised “various security concerns,” the source said.
Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo also “raised concerns” about the US request to grant special immigration visas (SIVs) to the Afghans in several meetings, according to the source who said that the majority of DFA officials, including the Office of Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Office of the Undersecretary for Civilian Security and Consular Affairs, were “strongly against” the “unreasonable request.”
“They maintain that the request from the US carries not only a security risk but a reputational one, given that the Afghan applicants will have their freedom of movement restricted,” the source said.
The source also disclosed that during a recent meeting with DFA officials, the US Embassy supposedly said that if the Philippine government agreed to the proposal, the United States planned to process the SIVs for 1,500 individuals per month.
The possibility of housing the Afghans at New Clark City, part of the former US Clark Air Base, would also be explored.
DFA spokesperson Tess Lazaro did not respond to requests for comment.US Embassy spokesperson Kanishka Gangopadhyay on Friday told the Inquirer that it would not comment on “ongoing diplomatic discussions.”
Call for transparency
Gangopadhyay noted, however, that US President Joe Biden’s administration “remains committed to the thousands of brave Afghans who stood side-by-side with the United States over the course of the past two decades.”
Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III on Saturday supported Marcos’ call for transparency in the government’s plan to host Afghan refugees and the need for Congress to be apprised of details of the plan.
‘Who’ is not the issue
Pimentel welcomed the move to provide sanctuary for distressed peoples from other countries, as the Philippines had done in the past.
“Our constitution requires transparency. Hence, if there is a plan to host Afghan refugees, such a plan must not be kept a secret,” Pimentel said in a Viber message to the Inquirer.
“There is no problem with the nationality or origin of the refugees. The ‘who’ is not an issue. If they need a sanctuary then the Philippines can be a good one,” he said.
At the House of Representatives, Deputy Minority Leader France Castro said the Filipino people “extends sympathies to the Afghans who are suffering from the ongoing conflict” in their Taliban-led country.
“We understand that many Afghans are seeking refuge and we are open to the possibility of providing assistance to those who need it,” Castro said in a statement to the Inquirer.
However, Castro pressed the Marcos administration to “exercise full transparency” in the supposed deal to allow Afghan refugees who had aided the Americans in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida to stay in the Philippines.
“The issue should not be used as a smokescreen on burning local issues like the Maharlika Investment Fund, increasing power rates, and low salaries of workers,” she added.
—WITH REPORTS FROM JULIE M. AURELIO AND JACOB LAZARO
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